I think best of lists are strange and potentially dangerous. Like this pretentious list Sight&Sound Magazine put together, of 50 Best Documentaries of All Time. If you’re new to docs and decide to begin by watching the films on this list, it is very likely you’ll never want to try again. It’s also very likely you will be convinced that the documentary world is some elite-connoisseur-group that likes to be bored to death.
Without a doubt, most of the films on that list are important. They either represent a stepping stone in the history of documentary making or they happened to contain certain images that are important for one reason or another. But these are not criteria for ‘best documentaries’, but more for a ‘most important documentaries’ list, where the importance is given by their role in the history of the genre. And I think, especially if you’re new to documentaries, you shouldn’t begin with the archive.
So here’s a list of the docs I’d make you watch if I wanted to charm you and hook you on this genre. They’re all new films, to warm your heart, tell you good stories, open your eyes and make you curious.
1. Man on Wire (2008, directed by James Marsh) because it tells a fantastically good story about an unusual man who walked between the WTC towers on a tight rope. It’s a film about an unusual passion, about friendship and about courage.
2. Searching for Sugar Man (2012, directed by Malik Bendjelloul) because of the great music in it and the unique story of an artist who never found his audience in the US and had to work low jobs to survive, but without knowing he became the voice of a generation in South Africa.
3. Episode III – Enjoy Poverty ( 2009, directed by Renzo Martens) because it is an eye-opener and perhaps the most important story to tell about aid work in Africa, and about how poverty is, unfortunately, a commodity.
4. Kumare (2011, directed by Vikram Gandhi) because it hits hard into the hype of Eastern spirituality in the Western world these days and manages to point at what is important. And because it’s an original idea and an entertaining film.
5. Manufactured Landscapes (2006, directed by Jeniffer Baichwall) because it is a monumental film that gives a real visual dimension to the impact our economies have on the Earth, and because the images in this film are spectacular and unforgettable.
6. The Ghosts in Our Machines (2013, directed by Liz Marshall) because approaching animal rights topics it’s a difficult thing to do without being too militant, and this film does it in a gentle, touching and memorable way. Because it talks about terrible things from an angle of love and because the devotion photographer Jo-Anne McArthur has for the animals she photographs is mind-changing.
7. War Photographer (2001, directed by Christian Frei) because it tells the story of one of the most well known photojournalists – James Nachtwey – and it’s at the same time a radiography of the profession and what it means.
8. Ne Me Quitte Pas (2013, directed by Sabine Lubbe Bakker and Niels van Koevorden) because you cannot imagine a documentary can actually have such humor.
9. Baraka (1992, directed by Ron Fricke) because its images are so beautiful and all together make a portrayal of humanity.
10. Going Up the Stairs (2011, directed by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami) because it is a heartwarming and simple story about an Iranian housewife with no education who loves to paint, and against all odds ends up traveling to France for her own exhibition.
11. Song from the Forest (2013, directed by Michael Obert) because it tells the complex, unusual, human and heartwarming story of a man with a big heart and a great love for music, love that brought him into the Central Africa Jungle where he has been living for the last 25 years. He adopted a child from the tribe with which he lives, and for the first time they are traveling to the USA. The film is about the man, the music and the trip to the US which is quite an experience for both him and his son.
12. 20 Feet from Stardom (2013, directed by Morgan Neville) because it’s an entertaining story and because it challenges notions of fame and talent and the relation between the two.
They’re many other good docs that tell beautiful stories, human stories, important stories. I hesitated putting on the list Rafea: Solar Mamas, 5 Broken Cameras, Dirty Wars, The Gatekeepers, Bitter Seeds. The list can continue. And I think that once you get into watching docs your need to see and to discover never ends, because each one is a window to the world. Especially with films approaching big or sensitive issues, you also begin to pay attention to the angle of the film and question what’s been left out. But that’s a different story.